Obstructing Peaceful Gathering and Popular Petitions

Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (to be published on 19 April 2004)

On the 6th April 2004, the Minister of Labour & Social Affairs sent letters to four civic societies (a primitive form of political parties) threatening of “legal action” if these societies carried on a plan to stage a popular petition on 21 April 2004 calling for rejection of the new constitution declared by the King in 2002.

Prior to his official letter, the Minister of Labour has made public announcements [1], threatening to use his power, as stated in article 50 of the Law on Societies no 21 of 1989 [2], to suspend or dissolute the four societies if they violated article (29) [3] of the constitution by using public petition to address demands to the authorities. The said societies responded to the Minister stating their right to call for a popular petition and the fact that such action is in line and not in contradiction with article (29) of the constitution.

The four abovementioned societies, which form a coalition of opposition groups, are: the National Democratic Action, the Islamic Action, Al-Wefaq National Islamic and the National Democratic Coalition. Al-Wefaq is the largest political society in the country and the most popular amongst the Shiite majority. In the municipalities election in May 2002, Al-Wefaq members won 18 seats out of 50, holding the position of head of council in three out of five municipalities, namely the Capital, the Northern and the Central.

Appeal:

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) considers any threats or actions against societies, merely for collecting signatures or holding peaceful meetings, is a violation of basic rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related International Conventions. Whereas obstructing people from expressing their views using peaceful means will only leave them to seek other forms which could affect the peace and security of the society. The BCHR calls on the authorities in Bahrain to permit the formation of political parties and amend the Law on Societies no.21 of 1989.

Background:

These tensions rose when the four societies declared their intention to organize a public gathering on 21st April 2004 to launch a popular petition which will address king Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa. The petition is a part of a campaign adopted by the four societies and a number of lawyers and activists following a conference on 14th-15th February 2004. The conference took place despite attempts by the authorities to abort it on the allegation of being unauthorized.

Political dispute started when the four groups had boycotted the elections of the House of Representatives, complaining that the people in Bahrain who voted in favor of the National Charter in 14th-15th February 2001, had no say in the new constitution declared by the King in February 14th, 2002.

According to the new changes in the constitution, the king appoints an equal number to the 40 elected representatives forming a Shura council which shares legislative power; legislations are proposed by the two councils or the government but should all be drafted and scheduled only by the Government, whereas legislations are not enacted without the approval of the King. On the other hand, the King appoints the Cabinet and administrates the country through it. The King also appoints members of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Council of the Judiciary. Furthermore, the National Council has become unable to put forward a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister.

The Law on Societies No.21 of 1989

It is true that Bahrain has witnessed significant change in the exercise of basic freedoms in the last four years, however, the restrictive legal framework belong to the previous era, and could be used any time to hinder these freedoms. The Law on Societies No.21 was enacted in 1989 in the absence of democracy. This law covers organizations with different objectives and different in nature including professional, cultural and social societies. It also includes various groups such as women, youth and foreign community societies as well as sport clubs. Political and human rights societies were added under this law when they were permitted to act in the country since 2001.

The Law on Societies restricts the right to set up a society, to amend society constitution, to engage in politics, to have links with overseas entities and to raise domestic and overseas funds. The law empowers the minister, in broadly defined circumstances, to merge societies, appoint management, suspend resolutions, control and supervise general meetings and intervene in the specifications of candidates for management and its meetings. The Law also empowers the minister to temporarily close any society [4].

Notes:

[1] Akhbar Alkhaleej newspaper, issue 9491, March 18, 2004; Alwasat newspaper, March 30, 2004; Bahrain Tribune, March 31, 2004

[2] According to Article 50 of the Societies Law, the Minister has the right to dissolve or close any society for a period of 45 days if, among other things, it proves unable to realize its objectives, or violates public order.

[3] Article (29) of the constitution states: “Any individual can address the public authority in writing and with his signature. Only duly constituted organizations and corporate bodies shall have the right to address the public authorities collectively”

[4] For more details, refer to BCHR report: Evaluation of Human rights Conditions in Bahrain: In Terms of Laws, Institutions and Protection Mechanisms

- December, 2003